Visual Arts

‘Our America’ exhibit at the Frost Museum strikes familiar chords in South Florida

Miami is one of those vanguard cities that forecasts the culture, language and priorities of the United States’ future. Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art specifically examines the impact and context of Latino artists living in the United States. It accomplishes this goal with bravura, humor and subversive poignancy.

The exhibition was produced and presented last year at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington and makes its first tour stop at Florida International University’s Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum. As Frost director Carol Damian explains about the international student body, “Our job is not only to educate our students about what the art of their countries and this country may represent, but also to instill a sense of pride in their history by showcasing works of artists that have achieved tremendous respect and renown all over the world, and to say ‘This is our story. This is your story.’ ”

Damian’s partner in calibrating the show for Miami was its original curator, E. Carmen Ramos. The Smithsonian American Art Museum began collecting Latino art in the 1970s, and in 2010 director Elizabeth “Betsy” Broun took a bold step. Ramos says: “Knowing that the population of our country was changing and that the museum had not intensely focused on Latino art, [she] wanted our museum to really change its collection.”

The Smithsonian hired Ramos and gave her two main charges: “One was to assess and expand our collection of Latino art and the other was to build and create an exhibition that really presented a kind of perspective on the field. And that's what this exhibition is.”

In a sweeping range of media, including photography, film, fake passports, political posters, altars and sculptural installations, the show consists of 85 pieces by 64 artists. Works in a diversity of styles and genres span five decades.

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Particularly in Miami, Latino art is usually presented in terms of Latin America and the Caribbean. That’s certainly understandable, both in terms of geography and history. But Ramos explained that she was “interested in the other half of the equation, and to look at the relationship between Latino art and the broad history of American art.”

The exhibition begins in the mid-20th century. That’s when many Latinos started attending art schools in the United States and gaining fluency in the art movements of the day. While African Americans were demanding their civil rights, so were Latinos, who often shared African ancestry and the experience of marginalization. Those dynamics are amply and powerfully represented in Our America.

It’s also no surprise to find strong critiques of stereotypes. One of Ramos’ favorite pieces is Cowboy and “Indian” Film by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, from 1957-58. Ortiz studied at Pratt Institute under the G.I. Bill. “He was a practicing abstract expressionist and then became interested in film as a ready-made material. And he was interested at the time in exploring his indigenous ancestry, so he approached the construction of his artwork from a ritualistic perspective.”

“He bought several copies of the film Winchester 73, chopped it up with a tomahawk, put it in a medicine bag, shook it up, took it out and re-pasted it together again and projected it as his own film. And part of what was motivating him was a desire to critically comment on the way that Native Americans were represented in American history and the idea of Western expansion — that the West was this empty area waiting for the United States to possess it. So it’s very critical of that historical moment.”

Regarding clichés, Damian said, “We have these notions in our head that [Latinos] are supposed to look a certain way, behave a certain way, dress a certain way. And exhibits like this turn that upside down.”

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Another limiting stereotype was stylistic, so the curators boldly chose to populate the first gallery with examples of geometric abstraction and abstract expressionism — both iconic mid-century “American” styles. The examples here just happen to have Hispanic names: Carmen Herrera; Olga Albizu; Paul Henry Ramirez; Freddy Rodriguez.

But themes of identity are not straightforward. Some artists signed their work on the back, as Latino identification could be counterproductive — or just irrelevant to artists’ aesthetic concerns. On the other hand, many artists in the exhibition are deeply committed to social causes and organizations. When he was just 20, Emanuel Martinez created a pyramid-like altar, upon which United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez broke bread during his fast in 1968.

Ramos describes the painted wooden sculpture’s context and placement: “It's a very powerful altar. In fact, we displayed it in front of a wall of posters, and on that wall there are many other artists who worked with Cesar Chavez. And you see similar iconography appearing on those posters and on the altar.” There’s the United Farm Workers’ eagle, a brown Christ that represents Catholic imagery, a peace sign. The mix of imagery refers to both American culture and to a politicized Chicano identity that was developing. Sun Mad by Ester Hernandez substitutes a skeleton for the sweet, bonneted maid in a poster that mocks the familiar raisin package.

Many Latinos lived double lives — whether as Latinos and as Americans, or in their fantasies. Puerto Rican Antonio Martorell’s woodcut, La Playa Negra I (Tar Beach I) is an oversize postage stamp, portraying a glamorous, fur-bedecked, globe-trotting woman, seated next to her miniature double, who’s hard at work on a treadle sewing machine. “Tar Beach,” a motif shared by African-American artist Faith Ringgold, refers to the rooftop “beach” that was the modest getaway for many sweatshop workers who dreamt of better.

Speaking about a kind of altarpiece by Franco Mondini-Ruiz, Ramos noted, “People were fighting for their rights, for their political rights, but they were also fighting for economic betterment, and you see that in his installation that represents Crystal City [Texas], the birthplace of the civil-rights movement.”

Artists with Miami connections are amply and strongly represented. María Martínez-Cañas reconnects to her Cuban birthplace and family chronicle, using an original, hybrid technique that combines drawing and collage on photosensitive paper. Influenced by the iconography of Wifredo Lam, she assembles cartography and historical documents in a totemic format.

Arturo Rodríguez’s tense, dreamy painting is densely packed with luminous but unsettling images. An uprooted tree, distraught youthful figures and dislodged dwellings poignantly evoke disruption and dislocation under a flesh-tinged sky.

Teresita Fernández explores graphite, a material that’s been used as a drawing medium for centuries. She exploits it as both substance and object. Building up a relief surface that resembles the geological context from which it’s mined, she simultaneously creates a monumental minimalist landscape that glints and darkens with the viewer’s movements.

Cuban-born Ana Mendieta’s primal and visceral work is world-renowned. She had an impact on Miami’s artist community during her brief stay in the early 1980s. Her Untitled photograph documents one of her iconic silhouette images, here carved into a streambed in Iowa and suggestive of primitive goddess figures.

Of Maria Brito’s complex sculptural assemblage, El Patio de mi Casa, Damian says, “Maria looks at the questions that women everywhere asked themselves, but she looks at it from the perspective of where she came from and where she is. So, there’s the past, which was Cuba, and the present, her day-to-day life and the challenges of a Cuban woman growing up in the United States, which, according to her parents, was just too free, just too liberal.”

Brito spoke about the process of creating her complex sculptural assemblage/installation. “So, I didn’t have a preconceived idea of what the piece was going to be like. I never do. I just start with the objects and let the objects communicate.”

Numerous motifs allude to forces of transformation: Massive roots are truncated; a branch grows through a wall from past to present. “Water is being collected from the past, and this is actually feeding and letting this branch survive,” Brito said.

There’s a kitchen, a crib, a peeling mask. Are these Latino symbols? Not necessarily, but they are emblematic of the trials of dislocation and remaking of lives that’s a common denominator of emigration. Following a talk she once gave, Brito said “A lady in the audience raised her hand and commented that one of my pieces … reminded her of her time in Auschwitz. That told me that the piece transcends my experience, and that’s what I feel, I hope, the work does.”

Ultimately, while Our America gives very specific insights into the particularities of individual Latino cultures and histories in America, it potently conveys the universal struggles and aspirations that we share.

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